Hey there! I'm Vivian. Sometimes I write about life and sometimes I write about teaching.

It’s multi-lit Friday and I’m sitting here wishing I could write a post in another language…Instead I’ll write a reflection on why you can’t ask someone if they speak Chinese?

A few years ago, my brother decided to spend a year working in Shanghai, the city where my stepdad, his dad, had been living for a number of years. This gave me a great excuse for making the trek to a country that my ancestors’ ancestors were from. You see, my family is Taiwanese, but before we were Taiwanese, some generations back we were Chinese. (I know some people will say it’s the same thing, but in my family, they definitely are not.)

My brother had never learned Mandarin or Taiwanese growing up because my parents and stepparents were from the generation of immigrants that thought we needed to learn English only to be successful. But because he has a really good ear for languages and he had been living in China for a few months already, he was starting to pick up quite a bit. Taiwanese was actually my first language but once I entered school, I didn’t spend my days with my Taiwanese-speaking grandparents and my parents spoke to me in English. Of course, in Shanghai, Taiwanese wouldn’t be helpful anyway. (There they speak Mandarin and Shanghainese.) I also know some Mandarin because my stepmom wasn’t as fluent in English as my other parents so I quickly had to learn some phrases to survive. All this is to say, that those languages/dialects are spoken in China, along with so many more, and just because you speak one it doesn’t mean someone will understand you. When someone asks me if I speak Chinese that doesn’t actually make sense. Which one?

So there we were, my brother and I, in the middle of Shanghai, looking like we should be fluent in either Mandarin or Shanghainese or both, all while being none of the above. First, we stopped to get some breakfast. Oooh, the name of that delicious egg crepe thing was on the tip of my tongue, but my brain just wouldn’t cooperate. We resorted to pointing and hoping that we weren’t missing some delicious options since we couldn’t ask for anything besides what was in front of us. Next, we stopped to get directions at a stand where a young Chinese man was selling NY-style deli sandwiches. In Shanghai you can’t assume that means he’s from New York. My brother and I both attempted to ask for directions to Yu’s Garden in our very clumsy Mandarin. The sandwich seller quickly said to us in an American accent, “Oh, you’re looking for Yu’s Garden?” Phew. Next stop, foot massages. We were able to use the menu to ask for the services we wanted. While we sat in our massage chairs speaking to each other in English, one of the therapists asked, “Where are you from? Hong Kong?” We shook our heads and explained that we were from mei guo, America. “You don’t look American,” the other therapist responded. My brother tried to then explain that our families were from Taiwan as if that might explain why our “Chinese” accent wasn’t quite right to their ears. “Aaaah,” they nodded, but still looked at us dubiously.

“Okay, I have to stop in the office for awhile jie jie. We’re going to meet Papa and Tina at Carrefour for dinner. Just tell the taxi driver you need to go to jiā lè fú,” my brother advised as we separated ways for a few hours.

It was finally time for dinner and I waved down a taxi and said in my best Mandarin accent where I needed to go. I was nervous because I wasn’t sure I actually remembered what my brother said accurately. Did I have the right tones? Were they even the right syllables? The taxi driver gave me a quick nod and started driving. Phew! I guess I got it right.

Once I arrived at Carrefour, my brother asked, “So what did you tell the driver?” I repeated what I had said. “Oh my god, it’s amazing that you even got here!” He shook his head in disbelief.

So do I speak a little Chinese? Yeah, but maybe not the one you’re thinking of.

  1. Abigail Lund says:

    It’s hard to be multi cultural. I’m married to a third culture kid and he doesn’t belong in either places he is from. He can speak both languages but he’s just not enough of either cultures to be one or the other. We are raising our son as a third culture kid too and I know he will have similar stories to yours ❤️

  2. I had no idea so many languages were spoken in China. Thank you for sharing this slice and perspective!

  3. Alice says:

    Such an interesting slice. And this totally counts as a multilingual Friday post. I had no idea about the variety of languages spoken in China. I have a friend who taught there for a little over a semester. She relied on Google and lots of pointing to get around.

    I learned Spanish from my grandparents and I also lost a lot of it when I entered school. Somehow I was able to maintain some of it, but it certainly isn’t native speaker level.

  4. Erika says:

    When I lived in Hong Kong I thought I could at least say my address correctly and practiced with the guard at our apartment building before heading out. Luckily he had given me a card with the address printed on it also, as the taxi driver looked at me with confusion when I was ready to go home. I kept the card handy “just in case” for other trips. In other situations, it has been challenging when I “look” like I speak the language where I am and get asked questions in a language I barely speak. It does make for some good adventures!

    • vivian chen says:

      When I arrived for this trip, I didn’t have a phone number or an address for my brother or stepdad! Just pure faith that my brother wouldn’t abandon me at the airport since I had his precious guitar with me. LOL.

  5. Thank you for this … I love how you taught so much through a narrative. The structure worked really well to bring the facts and the bigger meaning to life.

  6. arjeha says:

    Love the humor interspersed throughout this piece. We often jump to conclusions about people because of their looks or last name – the old judging a book thing. Thanks for the interesting and fun culture lesson.

  7. pfornale says:

    I enjoyed reading this and learning more about the regional languages of China and Taiwan. I could relate to your situation because when I visit my relatives in Italy, I must seem a bundle of ironies. My last name is very local to the specific area when my cousins live, and my looks are that of many Veronese. Once I open my mouth, however, my accent gives me away. To make it more interesting, there is a local dialect that is very different from standard Italian. I was going to write about this, but you did it much better than I would have. Compliments.

  8. Thanks for the clarifications and connections. I think a lot bout the dynamics of how we look in different contexts supports assumptions about what sounds people believe should be coming out of our mouths. As a Black person in Central Europe, it is rarely assumed that I will speak the native tongue. In Hungary and Slovakia, the assumption is correct. In Austria I have shocked more than a few folks when my Viennese colored German emerges.
    Very much appreciate the way you break down the nuances and the title is perfect!



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